What Babel should be

by: J. Angelo RacomaApril 3, 2013
Credit: Women using phones / Shutterstock

Unified messaging will usher in improved interaction (Photo credit: Women using phones / Shutterstock).

A week back, we featured an update on what was supposedly Google’s latest effort into creating a unified messaging service. Dubbed “Babel,” the unified chat service currently in internal testing supposedly combines Google’s various messaging services and offers cross-device support, group conversations, improved notifications, among other features.

But I have an idea of what Babel should be. Rounding up the supposed features of the upcoming messaging service, I would say I’d like Google to come up with something like Apple’s iMessage, BBM and then some more.


One big gripe I have with Google’s messaging services is that these are fragmented. You have a slew of services like Google Talk, Google+ Messenger, Google Voice, Hangouts, Chrome OS and even email messaging through Gmail. In some cases, these play along nicely, such as Google Talk chats being recorded into conversation threads in Gmail and Google Voice SMS and voice mail going into Gmail. But in most cases, it is not always easy to pick up where you left off when switching to another device or platform.

Even Google Talk, which is supposed to be among the most accessible among Google’s instant messaging services, is not always baked into Android devices and ROMs, which means some users will have to install third-party apps like IMO, IM+ or BeeJive just to chat with online contacts. It does offer choice, but this is not always the most elegant of solutions.

With Android now being the top mobile platform worldwide in terms of numbers, it only makes sense for Google to implement a unified messaging service. Never mind the carriers and their SMS and calling plans. Everything is going to data, and they know it.

Here’s where I think a service that works like iMessage would be excellent. I can already see some advantages, and these should, of course, go beyond what iMessage currently has to offer.

  • Cross-device support. Google should bake its messaging service into all its platforms and devices, including Android, Chrome OS, Chrome and even a desktop application. I want to be able to pick up a conversation on another device seamlessly. Even third-party apps like LINE let you do this. iMessage also has native support from within current iOS and OS X releases. In this regard, I think Babel should work across an array of devices — desktops, smartphones and tablets — as a unified messaging service that takes care of all Google-related communications all within the same protocol.
  • Presence indicators and read receipt. In an enterprise or organization setting, presence is as important as actually exchanging messages. With ubiquitous and persistent data connections on smartphones, a messaging service should also act as a means of telling your colleagues that you’re available, unavailable, busy or whatnot. Of course, those typing, delivered and read receipt indicators are useful during a chat session itself, as it takes the guesswork away when trying to determine if your contact has received that message.
  • SMS fallback. Here’s where iMessage shines. Apple’s devices can fall back to SMS when a data network is not available or if the recipient is not currently connected. This way, you can be assured that your message pushes through even without a reliable data network.
  • Multiple messaging options. Chat should be a good basic feature, but not everyone is satisfied with just text messaging. A unified messaging service should support voice and video, as well. I’d like to be able to switch to voice or video chat with the click or tap of a button. I would also want a messaging service that projects whoever I am talking to in front of me through augmented-reality and Google Glass.

Not just platforms, also languages?

Going beyond messaging, though, I think that a cool feature would be for Babel to enable on-the-fly translations during a chat session or even a voice call. The term “Babel” itself has linguistics and communication-related connotations. The Babel biblical account involved a united humanity, in which God confounded humans’ languages and scattered people across lands so that they could not reach heaven by themselves through the tower they were building. A contemporary interpretation of the Babel account, though, identifies it as the cradle of human civilization, which means Babel could be something that does bring together humans regardless of language and culture.

To describe what I would want Babel to be in one word, it would be “seamless.” I already rely on a handful of messaging services to correspond with friends, family members and colleagues, and these include iMessage, Google Talk and even Facebook Messenger. I don’t like fragmentation, but I do like having choice. It’s often cumbersome to have to maintain separate clients for different contacts and platforms, though. If Google were to make things easier through a more unified messaging application, then I’m sold.

  • Great article. I have to say that this website has really started putting out quality material. I don’t know when it happened, but you’re publishing original articles that really make one think about Android, not just which phone is better.

    • jangeloracoma

      Thanks for the comment. It’s great hearing back from you after quite some time (Disqus says about 3 months back). :)

  • Rex

    A very nice read Angelo! Thank you for the thoughts! Inspiring and thought provoking.

  • casinrm

    I want two things mostly.
    Google Voice integration so if the receiver’s phone doesn’t have the messenger app it can send a free SMS.
    Secondly, notification sync. If I receive a notification and go into a chat, every new message shouldn’t be ringing my other devices. If I’m not in the app, the notification should go to the last device I had or currently have open.

  • ConCal

    Good read!

  • Matt Gothard

    I made a simular post on the Google+ TWIG community a few days ago coining translation to be built in. Someone quite rightly commented that “It’s a strange name though since Babel is considered to be where mankind ceased being able to universally communicate. Colloquially babel means unintelligible.”

    • jangeloracoma

      I think initially mankind was united in tongue and wanted to build a tower which we can use to climb up to heaven. Maybe this is the sort of thing that Google wants.

    • Paul Taylor

      True, but since the coining of the term “Babel Fish” by Douglas Adams, translation is definitely something that springs to mind. Google Translate now has a back and forth chat mode, including voice recognition/speech synthesis and I’m sure they could easily include that almost as-is into Google Babel.

      But they really, really need to include proper push notifications in the Android app. I know that seems obvious, but that’s still something lacking from the Skype client.

  • Bjajjull

    I actually think that the name babel comes from “Babel fish” in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

  • Anon Schmorell

    Man I can’t wait until this little project comes into fruition. I hate Facebook for it’s etchy privacy snafus, but facebook messenger is so much better than Google talk, voice, and google plus messenger right now. Hang outs rock, but not enough casuals use it!

  • fixxmyhead

    cute bitches

  • doops

    Babel needs to take a leaf out of whatsapp messengers box of tricks .. Use your phone number to make it easy to sign up? Yes please.. This is the essence of simplicity

  • Danny

    I Want easy video sharing included. To many limitations with andriod regarding sharing hd video recorded on your device. ios compresses the video for you to send or option to trim if to long. Andriod just says file to big and it frustrating as hell. Whatsapp,email and path cant share an 11 second video!! If i knew this beforehand i would have stuck with my iPhone.